Here is a little extra folk-tale for you to enjoy on Halloween. It is the most famous Icelandic ghost story there is, and almost every Icelander knows it. A modern version, filmed for television, had the deacon riding a motorbike.
In Icelandic folklore, ghosts are supposed to be unable to say the name of God and will change names which incorporate God’s name into something else. The woman in the following story is named Guðrún, which means “God’s Rune”, but the ghost shortens it to “Garún”, which I spell as “Garoon” in the story to approximate how the ghost would have said it. The name of the church-farm the deacon came from translates as ”Dark River”. I have used the translated name of the farm and left out all other place-names to make it easier to read the story aloud. Another thing you need to know is that in many of the old-style churches in Iceland, the church bell was not located in a belfry, but at the top of the gate that led into the church-yard. This type of gate was called a “soul gate”.
The Deacon of Dark River
In the olden days, in the time before electrical lighting, when there were no bridges on the rivers and they had to be forded, there was a deacon (an assistant priest) at the church farm of Dark River in northern Iceland. His name has not come down to us. He was courting a woman named Gudrun, who lived on the other side of two rivers, one of them difficult to cross even at the best of times. The deacon had a horse named Faxi that he loved very much.
One December, shortly before Christmas, the deacon rode across the rivers to see Gudrun and invite her to a Christmas party at Dark River, promising to come at a certain time on Christmas Eve to take her there. In the days before he made this journey it had snowed heavily and the rivers were iced over, but on the day of his trip a sudden thaw came that broke up the ice on the rivers. In the afternoon, while the deacon tarried with Gudrun, the larger river had become unpassable with floating ice and high, turbulent water. When he left to return home he did not attend to what had been happening and thought the river would still be iced over. He made it across the smaller river on an ice-bridge, but when he got to the bigger river the ice that had covered it that morning had broken up into small pieces. He rode down the river bank to look for a way across, and finally came to an ice-bridge and rode out on it, but when he was half-way across the bridge broke, plunging man and horse into the river.
The next morning the farmer on the nearest farm across the river spotted a horse on the river bank and thought he recognised the deacon’s horse. This startled him, as he has seen the deacon cross the river the previous morning but not noticed him return, and he suspected that something terrible must have happened. He approached the horse and as he got closer he saw that the animal was soaking wet and bedraggled and the saddle was still on it. He feared the worst and continued walking until the reached the river and then followed the river until he found the deacon’s body on a sand bar further downstream, with the back of his head badly damaged from the ice. The farmer immediately went to Dark River to tell the news. They brought him home and buried him in there in the week before Christmas.
Between the time the deacon left Dark River to visit Gudrun and until Christmas Eve no news passed between the two farms due to the thaw and high waters. But on Christmas Eve the weather had improved and the river had subsided, and Gudrun was looking forward to the Christmas party. Around twilight she began to dress for the party and was nearly finished when there was a knock at the door. Another woman went to answer it, but could see no-one outside, which was perfectly natural, as it was neither light nor dark and the clouds kept drifting and covering and uncovering the moon by turns.
When the other woman came back in and said she had not seen anyone outside Gudrun said: “It must be for me. I will go out now.” She was fully dressed then, except she had not put on her coat. As she walked down the hall-way, she grabbed her coat and put one arm in one of the sleeves, but draped the other sleeve over her shoulder and held it with her hand. When she came outside, Faxi was standing there and a man by him that she took for the deacon. There is no mention that either said anything to the other at this point.
The man lifted Gudrun onto the horse and then mounted in front of her. The rode in silence for a while, until they came to the large river. There were high piles of ice on either side of the river, but the deacon ride straight up on the ice and plunged the horse down the other side, but as the horse took the plunge, the deacon’s hat was lifted up in the back. At that moment the clouds parted and the moonlight shone down and Gudrun could see that the back of his head was scraped bare to the bone. He said to her:
Moon is gliding,
Death is riding,
Can you see a white spot
On the back of my head,
My Garoon, Garoon?
She was startled but answered: “I see it.” Nothing more is known of their journey until they arrived at Dark River and dismounted in front of the churchyard gate. The deacon then said to her:
Wait for me, my Garoon, Garoon,
While I take my Faxi, Faxi,
Up into the pasture, pasture.
He left with the horse but Gudrun looked into the graveyard and saw an open grave. This terrified her, but she still had the presence of mind to take hold of the bell-rope. As she did this she was grabbed from behind, but as luck would have it she had never had the chance to put her other arm into her coat, but the ghost pulled so hard that the coat was torn apart at the seam of the sleeve Gudrun was wearing. The last she saw of the deacon was when he plunged into the open grave, taking the torn coat with him, and the earth was swept over the grave from both sides.
Gudrun rang the church bell with all her might until the people of Dark River came out and found her and took her back to the house. She was out of her wits with fright, having realised that her travel companion that night had been the ghost of the deacon, although she had not known he was dead. The people of the farm confirmed this, and she told them her story. That night, when everyone had gone to bed, the deacon came back to the farm and haunted Gudrun so hard that none could sleep that night, and for a fortnight afterwards she could never be alone and someone had to stay up and guard her every night. Some say it got so bad that the minster himself had to sit by her bedside and read aloud from the prayer-book.
Finally they sent for a sorcerer from the next fjord. When he arrived, he had them dig up a huge rock from the mountain-side above the farm and roll it down to the back of the house. As twilight descended that evening, the deacon came and tried to enter the house, but the sorcerer stood in his way and drove him around the house and towards the stone, using a great number of spells and incantations, and finally sank him into the ground and rolled the rock on top of him, and there the deacon has been trapped to this day. This ended the haunting at Dark River and Gudrun’s health began to improve. Shortly after she returned home, but people say that she was never the same after this.